Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences

Poverty intervention research links debt to low IQ

The ‘debt industry’ must adapt in order to prevent escalation

13 Dec 2018 12:24 | Communication

It’s likely that one third or more of the people in debt counselling or whose finances are administered by a trustee suffer from a moderate mental handicap. If special counselling remains unavailable, this number will increase and problems will continue to accumulate, states Rosine van Dam at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (AUAS). She bases these conclusions on a recently completed two-year study within the Poverty Interventions professorship.

A moderate mental handicap refers to a permanently low IQ, under 85. This causes approximately 3 in 20 Dutch citizens to have difficulty with reading, writing and arithmetic and to have an extremely low level of social-economic development. In a time when the emphasis is on independence and participation it seems that these people have insufficient options for inclusion in society. The group is vulnerable, is frequently overwhelmed and is at greater risk, partially due to the mental handicap, of poverty and debt accumulation.

A change in thinking

Although more attention is gradually being devoted to this problem, those providing assistance are often unaware that they are dealing with clients with a moderate mental handicap. The Poverty Interventions professorship at AUAS has therefore identified a series of indicators that will help detect the handicap at an earlier stage. They are intended for bailiffs, debt collection agency employees, administrators and people implementing the Participation Act (Participatiewet). They also receive tips for the supervision of this group of people. “A change in thinking is needed”, says Van Dam. “It is still assumed too often that these people do not want to cooperate in handling their debts, while it is frequently a question of lack of ability”.

Learning the hard way

Administrative trustee (bewindvoerder) Joris Korse confirms this but adds that it is difficult to distinguish between ‘those unwilling’ and ‘those unable’ without a diagnostic method. “I have learned the hard way. Initially, you think that someone is unmotivated. You think that you are giving a simple assignment, but you have to keep chasing it up. It is only later that you realise that someone is unable to handle it properly, but is unwilling to admit that fact.”


Overconfidence and a lack of insight into personal problems are signals that can typify the target group. In the study, the different signals are clearly described by means of infographics and leaflets, so that they can be used in professional practice. Korse is pleased with it, but emphasises that more applied research is required to train people working in this profession to recognise and supervise people with a moderate mental handicap. The professorship is cooperating partially with professionals from the administrative trustee field on follow-up research, including a doctoral study produced by Rosine van Dam.


But this does mean that professionals must adapt to the way in which clients with a moderate mental handicap experience the world, instead of the other way around. “Communication with them must take place in a different way from the start.” according to Van Dam. This is important particularly because an incorrect approach to the target group can exacerbate the problems.

Intellectual capacity

If a mental handicap is unrecognised or even ignored this leads to stress and tension. It is known that people experiencing stress, whether or not this is due to financial problems, can suffer from temporarily reduced intellectual capacity. This means that people with a mental handicap have even fewer skills and capacities to help resolve their problems. Moreover, the AUAS researchers emphasise that this promotes psychological and behavioural problems in this group.

Van Dam also suspects that a large part of the problem has not yet come to light because financial support is frequently offered within one’s social network. “If you look at the percentage of the population with a moderate mental handicap, only a small proportion are actually under ‘administration’. But only one thing has to go wrong - someone becomes unemployed or parents die – and the problems may appear.”